Excessively loud noises at work usually occur if an employee is working on a construction site with noisy machinery or constant loud sounds from hammering or digging. According to the Communications, Climate Action & Environment (CCAE) group, noise pollution is defined as “unwanted or harmful outdoor sound created by human activities”. Noise pollution itself can damage human hearing if it is sustained for long periods of time.
Workers in an office face a much lower risk, and employers need not spend much money on provisions ensuring there are acceptable levels of sound. However, it can still occur in a low-risk environment if there is loud, constant external noise pollution such as a very busy road. It is important for employers to protect members of staff from sustained exposure to loud noises as it can lead to permanent hearing damage if it is serious. Organisations must therefore carry out a risk assessment in order to minimise the danger to employees.
Although we have seen a reduction in cases of hearing problems that are work-related in the UK, it is still a problem that the UK government and employers must tackle. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the Self-Reported Work-related illness (SWI) surveys, there were 72,000 cases in the 2004/05 calendar year, which fell to 21,000 in 2007/08.
What are Acceptable Levels of Noise in the Workplace?
There are noise at work regulations in UK and European law, including the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, replacing the old 1989 Act. The law, using European Union (EU) legislation as a guide, ensures that employers are not exposed to harmful levels of noise at work for long periods of time. It does not cover loud, annoying noises that do not pose a danger of harm to health and safety. In addition, the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional office for Europe has developed a set of guidelines published in 2018 for EU countries to help mitigate the hazard of overly loud noise at work.
According to the HSE and their guidance for the Control of Noise at Work Regulations law, regular health and hearing checks must be carried out if a member of staff is constantly exposed to 85 decibels (dBs) of sound on a weekly or daily basis.
The Regulations also state that employers are obliged to conduct risk assessments and provide staff members with training on how to cope with noise, if they are exposed to 80 dBs regularly. Employees can be exposed to an absolute limit of 87 dBs, and this number considers “any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection”.
If any of these figures are exceeded in the workplace, the HSE recommends that organisations carry out risk assessments to “identify any employees who need to be provided with health surveillance” and ensure compliance with UK law. If workplace figures are below the above numbers, then it is considered an acceptable level of noise.
Employers have certain legal responsibilities under UK law to protect employees from the risks of excessively loud sounds. H&SE guidelines state that organisations must assess all risks to employees and take action to mitigate them i.e. provide appropriate protection equipment. Organisations also have a duty to effectively implement health and safety provisions from the top-down, using online training courses or seminars as tools to educate staff members.
If an organisation violates statutory or civil health and safety law, they may be liable to big penalties like fines or imprisonment. An injured employee can also file for negligence, and an H&SE inspector could be called to investigate the guilty party.